Monday’s Supreme Court ruling tossing Texas abortion restrictions puts a massive spotlight on the new debate pressing evangelicals: Which is a worse sin, racism or abortion?
For decades, abortion has been the mother of all deciding issues for evangelicals, who make up about a quarter of the U.S. population and are strongly opposed. But in the 2016 race, with Donald Trump’s unusually incendiary comments about race, culture and religion, this second issue is becoming increasingly sacred.
This question of how to deal with Hillary Clinton’s robust support for abortion rights along with Trump’s challenging of the place of minorities is one of the most common at evangelicals’ dinner tables today, laying bare divisions between young and old and white and non-white. And it is a challenge to the evangelical-GOP alliance that has been sacrosanct for generations.
On Monday, the Supreme Court ruled that Texas restrictions on abortion are unconstitutional. This comes at a time of controversy over various Trump statements, including a proposal to ban Muslims and remarks that a judge of Mexican descent couldn’t be unbiased in a legal case against him because Trump is vowing to build a wall between the United States and Mexico.
Abortion “is the single greatest issue of our time, I don’t disagree, but in responding negatively [when he raises the subject of race], it shows they don’t want to think about race and racism,” Thabiti Anyabwile, an African American pastor in Southeast Washington and a council member of the conservative evangelical network the Gospel Coalition, said in an interview. “They want to say it’s vastly secondary, so why bring it up? … My response is, why can’t we talk about both things?”
Anyabwile wrote on the racism-abortion dynamic on his popular blog this month in a post that was shared thousands of times.
“If you talk about any issue other than abortion, especially a ‘racial issue,’ then you’re idolizing ‘race’ and betraying the unborn,” he wrote. “The uneasy coalition of inter-ethnic evangelical concern comes collapsing down. … The problem, we are told, is that African Americans need to quit bellyaching about racism and the mirage of systemic injustice and just get on with it.”
There are complex changes in evangelicals’ views on both topics that don’t lead to simple political conclusions.
Young Christians are just as opposed to abortion as ever, but younger ones in particular are turned off by politics and partisanship as the main engines for change and are more focused on the culture, said Kristan Hawkins, president of Students for Life of America.
“I got into a tiff with a male pro-life leader on Facebook recently, [with me] saying our identity as abortion abolitionists doesn’t rest in who we vote for,” she said. “Just because a student may not vote for Trump, or if they vote for a third party, they don’t feel less of a pro-lifer. I have good friends who won’t vote for Trump, and that doesn’t make me question their pro-life values. We disagree on strategy. With the older generation, there is no room for disagreement on strategy.”
Hawkins said the young women who make up the bulk of her movement don’t like Clinton but are torn by the two topics.
“They aren’t fans of Hillary Clinton but they look on the other side and see these divisive statements [by Trump], that many would say are racist or misogynist, what do you do? And morally what’s the best decision for you?”
Katelyn Beaty, managing editor of Christianity Today, a flagship news site for evangelicals, said in the last five to ten years evangelicals have come to focus more on abortion-reduction strategies like funding counseling and pregnancy centers. They are looking more holistically at how to reduce abortions, she said.
“If life is worse for marginalized communities, it could fuel the number of abortions sought. It’s much more complex than: What does this individual running for president say they believe?” she said.
The legalization of abortion with the Supreme Court’s Roe vs. Wade decision in 1973 forced abortion-opposing Christians to figure out “more creative and entrepreneurial” ways to decrease abortion and other methods, Beaty said. Working in pregnancy centers, for example, led more Christians to interact with women considering abortion and put “a more human face” on the topic. “There are more pro-life Christians who feel they can protect the lives of the unborn in other ways beyond just what the Supreme Court rules.”
Deborah Fikes, a longtime leader with the National Association of Evangelicals and the World Evangelical Alliance, last week endorsed Clinton, saying Trump’s comments on Muslims in particular could “unravel” American advances on religious freedom overseas.
Asked how she justifies supporting Clinton on the topic of abortion, she said , “the more you dig into the real facts and factors of what makes abortion rates go up and down, evangelicals are finding ways to approach that differently [rather than automatically voting for the GOP nominee] without feeling their conscience is violated.”
A growing percentage of U.S. evangelicals are now non-white – 76 percent are white – and many leaders have said issues surrounding ethnic and racial diversity are pressing on this massive group. One obvious side effect, experts say, is that the subject of privilege is a greater part of the conversational mix.
Earlier this year, it made news when a young leader in the #BlackLivesMatter movement addressed a major conference of InterVarsity Christian Fellowship, one of the nation’s largest evangelical college ministries. Earlier this month, the Southern Baptist Convention — the largest faith group in the U.S. outside the Catholic Church — voted to condemn the Confederate flag.
Last week, when Trump spoke before a large group of conservative evangelical leaders, Eric Teetsel, former faith adviser for Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, stood in the hotel lobby outside the meeting with a homemade sign reading: “Racism is not pro-life. Misogyny is not pro-life,” among other lines.
Teetsel is an evangelical who has worked to promote social conservative views on abortion and marriage. He said evangelicals are wrong if they don’t see that racism and abortion rights violate “the same principle, that every human is created in the image of God.
“We shouldn’t kill children in the womb and we shouldn’t hate someone for the color of their skin,” he told The Post. “The younger generation and others are really yearning for that kind of consistency in policy.”
Denny Burk, a popular evangelical author and blogger who teaches biblical studies in the Southern Baptist Theological Seminary’s undergraduate program, said abortion – and the press to make it illegal – is just as much “a transcendent priority” as ever. What’s different in 2016, he said, is the manner in which “Trump’s candidacy brings in other transcendent moral concerns in a way that they haven’t been as clearly on the table in the past.”
Trump’s appeals to racism and his open talk of committing war crimes – “there are other moral priorities you have to recognize that also can be singularly disqualifying … in my view you haven’t had that happen, like you have in this cycle. It seems like a unique thing.”
Burk wouldn’t say for whom he is voting.
The exact political ramifications of this debate are unclear. A new Post-ABC poll released last week shows 68 percent of white evangelical voters support Trump, while 17 percent support Clinton — slightly smaller than Mitt Romney’s 57-point margin over Obama in 2012 but similar to John McCain’s 50-point edge in 2008.
Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis, home to the prominent conservative evangelical John Piper, has been trying to face this tension for years, holding “Sanctity of Life Sunday” each January, and then “Racial Harmony Sunday” usually within a week or two, before or after.
“My words were: ‘Some of you are celebrating this weekend, but might find it hard to celebrate the next weekend,’ and then I’d go into the image of God, and say ‘This is the common biblical teaching,’ “said Kenny Stokes, lead pastor at Bethlehem’s downtown campus.
“In my sphere there has been an awakening to racial issues and justice in its broader forms in addition to the unborn. It’s getting more complicated, and that forces a political crisis,” he said.